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Portrait of a seated man in eighteenth century dress.

At center, a man is seated in three quarter profile, facing right, but turning his head to look at us, while resting his left elbow on large books stacked on an adjacent table. He has pale skin, dark eyes, arched eyebrows, and his nearly bald hea is covered in a large pink beret-like cap. He wears a white cravat and white silk shirt with frilly cuffs under a gold waistcoat, and over that he wears a loose, emerald green, floral patterned silk robe. Behind him, a deep red curtain is pulled back, showing a painting of a ship sailing into a harbor.

Gallery Text

John Singleton Copley was among the most prominent portraitists in colonial Boston. In 1766, he was commissioned to paint three portraits of the Boylston family, which had amassed a fortune sending enslaved Africans and foreign goods to the Americas. Like many of his Boston portraits, Copley’s likenesses are a blend of fact and fiction. He combined detailed renderings of the sitters’ faces and garments with invented settings to convey the family’s wealth and status.

Copley portrayed the Boylstons in extravagant imported clothing. Sarah (1696–1774), seen in the portrait nearby, wears a sumptuous satin dress, while her sons are draped in richly textured dressing gowns, or “banyans,” exotic attire that conveyed their cosmopolitan identity and global power. Other elements in the portraits, like the large ledgers and the ship in this portrait of Nicholas (1716–1771), suggest the family’s mercantile identity without showing what—or whom— they traded.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
John Singleton Copley, American (Boston, MA 1738 - 1815 London, England)
Nicholas Boylston (1716 - 1771)
Nicholas Boylston (1716-1771)
Work Type
Creation Place: North America, United States, Massachusetts, Boston
Persistent Link


Level 2, Room 2240, European and American Art, 17th–19th century, The Arts in the Eighteenth–Century Atlantic World
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Physical Descriptions

Oil on canvas
127.3 x 101.1 cm (50 1/8 x 39 13/16 in.)
framed: 145.4 x 120 x 10.2 cm (57 1/4 x 47 1/4 x 4 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: l.l.: JSC. 1767.
  • inscription: on book in painting, in artist's hand: LEDGE/B.


Recorded Ownership History
Thomas Boylston II (the sitter's brother; to Moses Gill (the sitter's brother-in-law); to Ward Nicholas Boylston (the sitter's nephew), bequest; to Harvard College, 1828.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828
Object Number
European and American Art

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Publication History

  • "The Return of the Eighteenth Century", American Art, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 2-10, p. 6, ill.
  • Augustus Thorndyke Perkins, A Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley, J. R. Osgood & Company (Boston, MA, 1873), p. 38
  • William Howe Downes, "Boston Painters and Paintings, Part I: The Pre-Copleyites, Copley, Trumbull", The Atlantic Monthly (Boston, MA, July 1888), vol. 62 no. 369, pp. 89-98., p. 93
  • William Garrott Brown, A List of Portraits in the Various Buildings of Harvard University, Harvard University Library (Cambridge, MA, 1898), p. 9
  • Frank William Bayley, A Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley, The Garden Press, W. B. Libby (Boston, MA, 1910), pp. 21-22
  • Frank William Bayley, The Life and Works of John Singleton Copley: Founded on the Work of Augustus Thorndike Perkins, The Taylor Press (Boston, MA, 1915), pp. 64-65
  • Cuthbert Lee, Early American Portrait Painters: The Fourteen Principal Earliest Native-born Painters, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT, 1929), p. 74
  • Theodore Bolton and Henry Lorin Binsse, "John Singleton Copley", The Antiquarian (New York, NY, December 1930), pp. 116-118., p. 116
  • Laura M. Huntsinger, Harvard Portraits: A Catalogue of Portrait Paintings at Harvard University, ed. Alan Burroughs, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1936), pp. 23-24, ill. p. 25
  • Barbara N. Parker and Anne Bolling Wheeler, John Singleton Copley: American Portraits in Oil, Pastel and Miniature, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA, 1938), pp. 43-44, pl. 78
  • Historical Records Survey, Division of Professional and Service Projects, Works Progress Administration, American Portraits, 1620-1825, found in Massachusetts, Volumes 1 and 2, Historical Records Survey (Boston, MA, 1939), p. 46, cat. 246
  • From Colony to Nation: Exhibition of American Painting, Silver, and Architecture from 1650 to the War of 1812, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL, 1949), p. 31
  • Louisa Dresser, Likeness of America 1680-1820, exh. cat., Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs (Colorado Springs, 1949), cat. 16, pl. 8
  • H.C. Warwick and Henry C. Pitz, Early American Dress, B. Blom (New York, NY, 1965), pl. 35A
  • John Singleton Copley, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C, 1965), pp. 48-49, cat. 29, ill.
  • Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1966), vol. 1, p. 54, 66, 104, 210, pl. 182
  • Marshall B. Davidson, The American Heritage History of Colonial Antiques, American Heritage (New York, NY, 1967), p. 191, ill.
  • Louise Todd Ambler, Early Science at Harvard: Innovators and Their Instruments, 1765 - 1865, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, December 1969-January 1970), pp. 3, 74
  • Alfred V. Frankenstein, The World of Copley: 1738-1815, Time-Life Books (New York, NY, 1970), pp. 84-85, ill.
  • Louise Todd Ambler and Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, "American Painting at Harvard", Antiques (New York, NY, November 1972), vol. 102, no. 5, pp. 876-883, p. 876
  • Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, Peter G. Huenink, Earl A. Powell III, Harry Z. Rand, and Nanette C. Sexton, American Art at Harvard, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1972), cat. 8, ill.
  • James Thomas Flexner, America's Old Masters, Doubleday & Co. (Garden City, NY, 1980), pl. V
  • Robert F. Perkins, Jr. and William J. Gavin, III, Boston Athenaeum Art Exhibition Index, 1827-1874, The Library of the Boston Athenaeum (Boston, MA, 1980), p. 39
  • Bernard Bailyn, The Great Republic : A History of the American People, D. C. Heath and Co. (Lexington, MA, 1980), p. 237, ill.
  • Leo van Witsen, Costuming for Opera, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN, 1981), p. 178
  • Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Carol Troyen, and Trevor J. Fairbrother, A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760-1910, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA, 1983), pp. 38,196, cat. 2, ill.
  • William J. Shank, "John Singleton Copley's Portraits: A Technical Study of Three Representative Examples" (thesis (certificate in conservation), Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, July 1983), Unpublished, pp. 1-45 passim
  • John Wilmerding, American Marine Painting, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (New York, NY, 1987), p. 10, fig. 1
  • Robert Shalhope, The Roots of Democracy: American Thought and Culture, 1760-1800, Twayne Publishers (Boston, MA, 1990), ill.
  • Martin Filler, [Unidentified article], House & Garden, Conde Nast (New York, NY, March 1991)
  • Sandra Grindlay, "Harvard's Portraits: An American Treasure", Harvard University Art Museums Review (Fall 1992), vol. II, no. 1, pp. 6-7, p. 6
  • Morrison Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1992), p. 138, 140, cat. 90, ill.
  • Ellen G. Miles, "John Singleton Copley in America", Archives of American Art Journal, Smithsonian Institution (Detroit, MI, 1994), vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 24-27, p. 27
  • Timothy Anglin Burgard, American Art at Harvard: Cultures and Contexts, brochure, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1994), p. 10, cat. 20
  • John Caldwell, Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque, and Dale T. Johnson, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Volume I: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born by 1815, ed. Kathleen Luhrs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University Press (New York, NY and Princeton, NJ, 1994), p. 82
  • Carrie Rebora and Paul J. Staiti, John Singleton Copley in America, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY, 1995), cover, pp. 54, 71, 86, 113, 137, 150-151, 222, 224-225, cat. 31, ill. p. 52
  • Carrie Rebora Barratt, "Transforming Colonists Into Goddesses and Sultans: John Singleton Copley, His Clients, and Their Studio Collaboration", The American Art Journal (1996), vol. XXVII, nos. 1 and 2, pp. 4-37, pp. 5-6, fig. 2
  • Henry Lie, Straus Center for Conservation Annual Report 1994-1995 (1996), p. 45
  • Carol Troyen, "A Choice Gallery of Harvard Tories", Harvard Magazine, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA, March 1997 - April 1997), vol. 99, pp. 56-60, ill. p. 58
  • Susan Rather, "Carpenter, Tailor, Shoemaker, Artist: Copley and Portrait Painting around 1770", The Art Bulletin, College Art Association of America (New York, NY, June 1997), v. 79, pp. 269-90, p. 277, ill. p. 279
  • Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (New York, NY, 1997), pp. 84-86, fig. 54
  • Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy, Reading American Art, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT, 1998), pp. 13-15, fig. 2.1
  • Carrie Rebora Barratt, "Oriental Undress and the Artist", Porticus, Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester (Rochester, NY, 2001), vol. 20, 2001, pp. 18-26, pp. 22-23, fig. 4
  • Michael Zakim, "Sartorial Ideologies: From Homespun to Ready-Made" (December 2001), ill. p. 1560
  • Madelyn Shaw, Silk in New England Society, 1730-1930, brochure, Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton, MA, 2003), cat. 9
  • Jon Prown, "John Singleton Copley's Furniture and the Art of Invention", American Furniture, Chipstone Foundation (Milwaukee, 2004), p. 176, fig. 33
  • John T. Bethell, Richard M. Hunt, and Robert Shenton, Harvard A to Z, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 2004), p. 276
  • Margaretta M. Lovell, Art in a Season of Revolution: Painters, Artisans, and Patrons in Early America, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 2005), p. 101, fig. 38
  • Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, UK, 2006), pp. 262-263, fig. 6.1
  • Jennifer Roberts, "Copley's Cargo", American Art (Summer 2007), vol. 21, pp. 20-41, p. 23
  • Angela L. Miller, Janet C. Berlo, Bryan Jay Wolf, and Jennifer Roberts, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity, Pearson Prentice Hall (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2008), pp. 122-124, fig. 4.30
  • Stephan Wolohojian and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, ed. Stephan Wolohojian, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, 2008), ill. p. 124
  • David Bindman, ed., The History of British Art 1600-1870, Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, 2008), p. 45, fig. 16
  • David Jaffee, A New Nation of Goods: The Material Culture of Early America (Philadephia, PA, 2010), p. 13, fig. 6
  • Christopher Lukasik, Discerning Characters: The Culture of Appearance in Early America, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia and Oxford, 2011), pp. 137-138, fig. 22
  • Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. and Melissa Renn, American Paintings at Harvard, Volume One: Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels by Artists Born before 1826, Yale University Press (U.S.) and Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge and New Haven, 2014), pp. 23, 140-141, 463, cat. 87, ill.
  • Jennifer Roberts, Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America, University of California Press (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 2014), p. 17-18, fig. 2
  • Kirstin Fawcett, "18th Century Men Wore Dresses Called Banyans", Mental Floss ([online publication], September 22, 2015), repr.,, accessed February 21, 2020
  • Richard H. Saunders, American Faces: A Cultural History of Portraiture and Identity, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH and London, 2016), repr. p. 5 as fig. 1.3
  • Jonathan Eacott, Selling Empire: India and the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830, The University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, 2016), p. 175, repr.
  • Murray Whyte, "A History of Slavery, Vivdly Alive in the Present at Harvard", The Boston Globe (March 17, 2019), pp. N1, N6, p. N6, repr.
  • Nika Elder and Diana Seave Greenwald, "Enslaved Labor and Cultural Capital: A Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis of Copley's Colonial Patrons and Their Circum-Atlantic World", Winterthur Portfolio, The University of Chicago Press (Winter 2020), vol. 54, no. 4, pp.223-243, pp. 223-225, 237-239, repr. p. 224 as fig. 1
  • Rosalind McKever, Claire Wilcox, and Marta Franceschini, ed., Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear, exh. cat., Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 2022), p. 133, repr. as no. 101

Exhibition History

  • Boston Athenaeum Second Exhibition of Paintings, 1828, Boston Athenaeum, Boston, 05/01/1828 - 12/31/1828
  • Likeness of America 1680-1820, Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, 01/01/1949 - 12/31/1949
  • John Singleton Copley, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 09/18/1965 - 10/31/1965; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 11/20/1965 - 01/02/1966; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 01/22/1966 - 03/06/1966
  • American Art at Harvard, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/19/1972 - 06/18/1972
  • A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760-1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 09/07/1983 - 11/13/1983; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 12/06/1983 - 02/12/1984; Grand Palais, Paris, 03/16/1984 - 06/11/1984
  • American Rococo: Eighteenth Century Elegance in Ornament, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 01/29/1992 - 05/17/1992; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 07/02/1992 - 09/27/1992
  • American Art at Harvard: Cultures and Contexts, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 10/01/1994 - 12/30/1994
  • John Singleton Copley in America, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 06/07/1995 - 08/27/1995; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 09/26/1995 - 01/07/1996; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston, 02/04/1996 - 04/28/1996; Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, 05/22/1996 - 08/25/1996
  • Silk in New England Society, 1730-1930, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, 03/28/2003 - 06/15/2003
  • GenEd US12 American Encounters: Art, Contact, and Conflict, 1560-1860 (S427) Spring 2012, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/31/2012 - 05/12/2012
  • 32Q: 2240 18th Century, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

  • Collection Highlights

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Verification Level

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of European and American Art at